Dear Friends and Family,
This week’s letter is longer than I’d like. After all, I don’t want to tire you out, dear reader. But so much
happens every week, not only locally, but regionally too, that I can barely keep up. In this e-mail I speak of our meeting with the landlord, Steve’s Catholic conversion, and walls.
Anton the Landlord
The landlord, Anton, who has no English, and his daughter Rita (who has some English), came to pick up the last installment of rent. Instead of paying the rent monthly, it’s common here to pay the rent, if less
than a year’s lease, in one payment. We prevailed upon the landlord to pay him in three installments (one each in September, October and November) for several reasons: 1) not to over-exercise our bank cards in the first week; 2) to make sure that apartment appliances and furnishings were satisfactory; and 3) to determine if the heating was functioning as it should be. (Our motivation to get the kerosene heater going in September was nil but becomes more pressing as December draws near.) The preliminary conversation about the family over tea was not the typical “How are you? Fine. How is
the fam?” Etc. Last month, Rita’s aunt (her mother’s sister) was killed in an automobile accident. Her
husband was driving and if this is not heartbreaking enough, their children, ages 6 and 10 were in the car too. Seeing their mother’s violent death continues to traumatize them. The whole family is trying to
adjust and cope to this new reality.
After this tragic story there was little stomach for conducting the business at hand, but Anton, eager for his last payment forged ahead. But before forking over the cash, we had an agenda: 1) we needed a tutorial on how to ignite the kerosene parlor stove. Now, we’re pretty experienced at lighting matches
to start wood fires, having done so for nearly 40 years. Yet there’s something about throwing a match
onto dripping kerosene that has us spooked. The key, it appears, is to throw the lit match onto just enough kerosene to get a fire going, but not too much to drown it out or get an explosion. A delicate balance; 2) we wanted to know how to refill the kerosene tank on the roof. (The answer: Check with the neighbors. They know which tank is which and know whom to contact); 3) we then asked what could be done about the pigeons. (Again, ask the neighbors.) You might detect a pattern here. The other apartments in the building are really condos, owned by different owners. We’re the only rental
here. (Anton who has never lived here probably inherited the apartment from a relative.) Last on our agenda was to remind him of an earlier request for a queen-sized comforter for our bed. We presently have two lightweight twin-sized blankets which has been fine so far. But we anticipate that the weather will turn colder next month, I predict that Steve and I will be wrestling for control of the covers. Hence, the request for a large, warm comforter. We had bought the sheets, of course, but felt that the comforter should be part of the furnishings. As a bottom line, we were certainly willing to buy the comforter, but we wanted him to know that we were doing so. So there ensued a typical marketplace negotiation between Landlord and Tenant:
L: No, I will not buy the comforter; it’s a personal item.
T: No. You should buy the comforter because it belongs to the apartment.
L: You buy the comforter and it is yours to bring to the States
T: We don’t want to bring a comforter back to the States. It would stay in the apartment.
We went back and forth in this manner for about 15 minutes at the end of which Anton announced that he would buy the blanket. Hamdullilah! Would two weeks be sufficient? Yes, no problem, we said, it is not cold yet. He then announced that he could get it now. Could we wait 10 minutes for him to get it from his car? Of course. During his absence, we spoke to Rita about her aunt’s children. Anton re-
entered, stage right, less than 10 minutes later with a HUGE king-sized double-thick fleece comforter. Congratulations all around, everybody was happy. We paid the remaining balance on the rent. After they were gone, Steve and I were left scratching our heads. What had happened here? The blanket had been in Anton’s car all along. Why such a dance to get to the inevitable? We’re still shaking our heads a
Steve the Catholic Convert
Who would have thought that Steve would so easily transition from the not-so-pious preacher’s kid into
a regular at St. Anthony’s? For the past month he had been hunting down an opportunity to sing in a chorale, but there are very few Protestant services in Damascus, none with choirs. In our neighborhood of the Old City, we are surrounded by Greek, Armenian, Catholic and Syrian Orthodox churches, but as far as we know, they have no chorales either. This left St. Anthony’s, the Eglisia Latina, located in the
center of Damascus. So he has joined the St. Anthony chorale. They rehearse Friday evening for an up-coming Christmas mass and sing at the Arabic mass on Sunday nights.
The church is likely named after St. Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan monk who lived and preached in the th13 century. He performed many miracles, but is best known for helping supplicants recover things lost. Although I cannot personally attest to his powers, I know people who do, my mother among them. It’s
a little spare for a catholic church. Stations of the Cross are painted wooden plaques on the wall; Statue of the virgin is located on the left; St Anthony is carrying the baby Jesus and St Francis on the right. The crucifix, of course, dominates in the middle. The pews are uncomfortable – benches with one ill-placed
slat for the back. Kneeling benches are provided, but kneeling seems to have gone out of fashion since the last time I attended church—admittedly a long time ago.
The chorale members trickle into the organ loft with the Mass in progress. By the time the anthem comes around on the organ twenty minutes into the Mass all the choristers have arrived. The choir consists of 6 sopranos and one tenor (Steve) and 6 bassi. It seems to be a young chorale, averaging 27 without Steve. The distinctive thing about this choir is that it sings in two parts – soprano/tenor and
bass. They all read music, Latin, French, and, of course, Arabic. And everybody speaks English to Steve. The chorale sang an anthem in French, and responses in Latin and Arabic. Music is noted from left to right, Arabic language from right to left. Have you ever thought of the problem of lining up the words and the music when one is singing in Arabic? The answer, my friends, is that the music is backwards: The clef and signature are on the right hand side of the staff and the notes move right to left. Definitely a challenge for the novice.
The English language TV news services that we get – the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera -- have all been full of the
fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this week, showing moving historic footage of people breaking up the wall. Al Jazeera is the only TV channel, though, that has brought up the connection between the Berlin Wall and other walls – in Samara, Iraq to protect a holy shrine; along the southern US border with Mexico to keep immigrants from coming north; and, of course, in Palestine to separate the West Bank from Israel. This week some Palestinians brought down a six-foot section of the wall at Qalandyia in a purely symbolic gesture to show that this wall is not the will of the people. The Israelis soldiers tear gassed them.
Walls do not increase people’s security; they actually increase insecurity through fear and terror. The Israeli government erected what it calls this “separation barrier” supposedly to protect its citizens from
terrorists and to increase their safety. But how can the security of Israelis increase at the same time that the Palestinians’ welfare is dramatically decreasing? The serpentine wall winds its way around for 650 kms (four times the length of the Berlin wall) excluding Palestinians from their ancestral water sources, homes and olive groves. Palestinians have lost rights to water, homes, land and livelihoods. Many have lost hope and have left the West Bank dreaming of a better future for their children. This is of course part of the Israeli government’s plan: make life so difficult for Palestinians that they will leave
their land. If the Israel government is truly serious about the security of its citizens, they should be working to ensure that Palestinians feel safe, too. The security of Israelis and Palestinians is intertwined. I was moved to see Daniel Barenboim conduct the Berlin Symphony at the Brandenburg Gate. He has worked for so many years to bring different people together believing that music can help people connect with one another. Dedicated to the notion of global residency, he holds citizenship to both Israel and Palestine, along with Argentina, Germany and Spain. Ten years ago he and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, comprised of young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab countries. This orchestra, based in Sevilla, Spain, has performed a number of concerts, notable for the fact that in many cases, it was the first time that Israelis and Palestinians came together as equals. And that’s the core of the problem in Israel and Palestine now.
There are laws on both sides prohibiting interaction, so there are few opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to work, meet, and play together. There is no opportunity to move in freedom, see friends, and meet colleagues.
We celebrate the toppling of one wall while doing nothing to break down another. Daniel Barenboim can’t do it alone.